Unless we’re in the ranks of the elite runners, we have to weave our running into our daily lives and schedules — not always an easy task. We have these small windows where we can fit in a few miles here or there without any wiggle room, often leaving things like the warm-up and cool-down by the wayside. Other times, we don’t feel like doing all the pre- and post-run prep, just wanting to lace up the shoes and go. No matter the reason, when we skip out on warming up and cooling down, we also skip out on the chance to properly set ourselves up for success with the workout and recovery. The benefit of the extra ten to twenty minutes spent doing these things extends far beyond the workout itself!
Why you should warm up
It’s beneficial to warm up before any type of workout so that we can gradually bring up our heart rate and increase blood flow to our muscles to perform at an optimal level. It is a lot safer for the muscles to have that transition period rather than going full throttle out of the gate. Think of it like your car engine — when you pull out of a parking space, it’s better for the engine and more fuel efficient to slowly bring your car up to speed rather than to slam on the gas pedal.
Rather than jumping right into the workout, you should spend at least 5-10 minutes doing some dynamic warm-ups, not static stretching. You want to increase blood flow while maintaining the elasticity of your muscles; people lose the spring in their step when using static stretching before a workout because they’re essentially lengthening the muscles, making it more difficult for them to extend and contract on the run. For dynamic exercises, try exercises like leg swings, hip openers, high knees, and butt kicks. Also encouraged is doing some easy miles leading into the harder stuff. Not quite going zero to sixty, but accelerating on the on-ramp into the freeway.
Why you should cool down
Similar to warming up, cooling down allows your breathing to slow down and heart rate to decrease gradually while keeping blood flowing to the muscles. During exercise, especially intense workouts, your muscles are constantly lengthening and contracting, eventually becoming tighter and tighter until they eventually tighten too much, cramping up if you stop moving altogether.
Let’s take a look at the car metaphor again. Similar to how you want to come up to speed coming out of a stop, it’s best for your car if you gradually slow down into a full stop rather than slamming on the brakes. A good way to cool down is to keep your muscles active and moving at least 5-10 minutes following the workout by running at a slower pace or walking. Once your heart rate is down and breathing slows, static stretching can benefit and speed up your recovery by helping to relax the muscles and reduce the tightness that comes about post-workout.
Both warming up and cooling down not only help you have a more effective workout, but they also prepare your body better for future runs by speeding up recovery. While they can add some time to a workout that you may already be struggling to fit into your packed schedule, these things are certainly worth the time and are good habits to make time for!